My church’s Sunday School class is going through the United Methodist Church’s Social Principles. We had a lot of good discussions last Sunday: about pay disparity between men and women, alcohol, eugenics, the unborn, rights and responsibilities, the afterlife, and the list goes on. In this post, I will concentrate on three topics: the unborn, alcohol and Scripture as a guide, and the afterlife.
1. We did not have an extensive discussion on abortion, per se, but we did get into issues regarding the unborn. The pastor has a Ph.D. in genetics from Yale, and she was addressing some of what the Social Principles have to say about genetics. Although she is politically progressive, she was expressing concern about the unborn. She was saying that certain fertility procedures result in the creation of numerous unused embryos, and she was questioning whether that was right. She also told us a story about Saudi couples who wanted to see their child inside of the woman’s womb, and their real reason for doing so was to determine if the child was a female, and to abort the child if that was the case.
After the pastor left the class to prepare for the church service, we stayed behind and continued the discussion (or, actually, I just listened). One lady, who was raised in a conservative Catholic home and has an ambivalent attitude towards her Catholic upbringing (i.e., her attitude is negative, but she still seems to embrace some of its ideas), appeared to be saying that life begins at conception. Another lady, who is a progressive activist, said that, if that is the case, then society should care about the well-being and provision of the unborn, just as it cares about children after birth. A man in the group then said that the reason that the unborn do not have rights is that such rights conflict with women’s rights—-or, rather, the unborn’s rights are being undermined in the name of women’s rights. His comment was rather controversial among the women in the group, including (it seemed to me) his wife!
I was wondering if it really was the case that the unborn have no rights at all in the United States. I am aware that abortion is legal, but my understanding was that society still had some concern for the unborn: there are calls for prenatal care in health care policies, and I thought that there were legal penalties for harming a fetus—-if a mother drank and had a child who had fetal alcohol syndrome, for example, or if a man harms a woman and ends up harming her fetus as well. I later did a search online, and the issue of fetal rights does appear to be rather complex, as far as the law is concerned (see here and here).
When the pastor made that point about embryos, my thought was: “Well, what would be the big deal? If the embryo is just a blob of tissue, does it matter if there are a lot of them that are unused?” But even progressive people can believe that human embryos have some special human significance—-that they are more than blobs of tissue. I recall an online discussion that I had a while back about abortion. A progressive was saying that she was against abortion personally, but that she still was pro-choice. I asked her why she was against abortion personally, and she replied that she thinks that, in many cases, abortion is the easy way out—-that there should be some gravity in the decision on whether or not to abort. Many would say that there already is gravity—-that abortion is not a decision that is made lightly.
I could go on to detail my annoyances with Christian right-wing pro-lifers, particularly the types who proclaim that liberal Democrats are not true Christians because of their abortion stance. (No one in the group espoused this view, fortunately.) Personally, I am not satisfied with either side: I believe that the unborn are more than blobs of tissue, but I also think that laws against abortion are too inflexible and can place the health and economic livelihoods of women at risk. Anyway, I don’t want to write myself into a pit, so let’s move onto the next item.
2. On alcohol, the Social Principles gave a nod to the traditional Methodist belief in abstinence, but they went on to say that, if people decided to drink, then they should drink responsibly, and with Scripture as a guide. The pastor thought that the part about Scripture being a guide on alcohol was a bit laughable. “What Scripture is supposed to be the guide?,” she asked. “Jesus turning barrels of water into wine?”
That part in the Social Principles stood out to me, too. Initially, I thought that Scripture could be a guide. The Bible does condemn drunkenness (I Corinthians 6:10), and the Book of Proverbs depicts negative consequences of drinking too much. As I reflected on my life, however, I realized that those passages did not exactly convict me in the days when I was drinking. I assumed that they were talking about something different from what I was doing, that they were not talking about me going out and getting drunk, but rather concerned people who drank all day, or who got into fights as a result of drinking.
It is interesting to me that, overall, the Social Principles do not quote biblical proof-texts for their position. They refer to Ezekiel 34:4 in arguing for a universal right to health care, but I cannot think of too many other instances like that. For example, the section on divorce was reasonable, I thought, but it did not interact with biblical passages about divorce. That is a refreshing contrast to some things I have seen on the Christian right: I remember one magazine quoting biblical proof-texts to argue that God supports President Reagan’s Star Wars program! I am not in favor of that extreme, but I am curious as to why Scripture does not play a prevalent role in the Social Principles. Are they trying to avoid simplistic proof-texting? Do they believe that applying Scripture as a guide is complex? Maybe their authors would say that they are drawing from the principles of Scripture, even if, as a general policy, they are not quoting explicit texts.
3. Someone in the group referred to the section of the Social Principles about suicide. While the section discourages suicide, it states that “A Christian perspective on suicide begins with an affirmation of faith that nothing, including suicide, separates us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39).” (Okay, there is another reference to Scripture in the Social Principles!) The ex-Catholic lady then said that, according to Catholicism, people who commit suicide go to hell. The reasoning for that position, in my understanding, is that suicide is murder, a mortal sin, and a person who commits that sin cannot repent of it and receive forgiveness because he or she has died. Both the ex-Catholic lady and the lady who referred to the section on suicide preferred what the United Methodist Church’s Social Principles had to say about the subject.
The lady who referred to the section, however, then said something that took me aback. She said that nothing can separate us from the love of God, but that we can separate ourselves from the love of God. She probably meant that we can separate ourselves from God’s love by not believing in him, for she went on to say that we should not worry about the soul of a non-believing friend or loved one who died, for that person may have accepted Jesus before dying. Impending death, she said, can put people in a spiritual state of mind. I was a bit surprised to see United Methodists wrestling with this question. I realize that there are conservative United Methodists, but my understanding was that this particular church had recently gone through Rob Bell’s Love Wins, which some say is universalist, and which supposedly argues against the idea that people will go to hell if they fail to accept Jesus in this life (not that Bell would say that spiritual decisions in this life are unimportant). I’m wondering how people in the church processed the book (which, to be honest, I myself have not read).